With the Premier League returning this weekend after the international break, the final straight before this unprecedented World Cup is well and truly upon us.
And for Gareth Southgate, the England manager has three weeks until he names his provisional squad, with the final submission on 13 November – the day domestic football shuts up shop for a six-week break.
In that time, Southgate will sweat over the potential for injuries as he swaps pencil for ink when finalising his 26-man list, and though a six-match winless run has placed his selections fiercely under the spotlight, it appears he will stick with one of his more contentious picks.
Harry Maguire played the entirety of England’s matches against Italy and Germany recently, meaning he has featured just 10 minutes more in the Premier League this season than he has in the Nations League.
This epitomises his current standing. Out of favour under Erik ten Hag at club level, but with enough credit in the bank on the international stage to still start for Southgate, irrespective of form.
For that reason, and despite his errors against Germany, few doubt Maguire will make the plane to Qatar and even start, so between now and England’s World Cup opener – against Iran on 21 November – the Manchester United defender has time to rediscover his form, confidence, and according to ex-England defender Martin Keown, improve his fitness too.
“Southgate believes in the player, and whether we like it or not he’s going to pick him,” Keown told reporters. “I think the player needs to be fitter than he is, and I would say that after two games back-to-back [for England], it’s almost like his preseason, and his season starts now less than 50 days away from the World Cup.
“He needs to be grafting through the week, doing more, as he didn’t look sharp enough. I know there’s a match fitness you can never really get [without playing regularly], but I think he needs to get closer to being there with his club side.”
The Maguire conundrum means Keown is not alone when it comes to past England defenders addressing what Gary Neville calls a “difficult moment” for the Manchester United captain.
“It’s a tough period for Harry, there’s no getting away from that,” Neville told BBC Radio 5 Live. “But there’s nothing you can do other than show up, try your best and not give in. At some point, his form will return because he has been an excellent player for United at times and England.
“I would suggest he does what I did. I did go and see my doctor at Manchester United. I did go and see a psychologist and get help. You do need external help at times.”
Jamie Carragher suggested Maguire should leave United next summer but also laid down a challenge to the defender – “My question to Maguire is this: ‘Do you still have that same fury in you?’” he wrote in the Telegraph – while Southgate, himself no stranger to the public’s vitriol after his penalty miss at Euro 96, has suggested it is in the national interest to get behind Maguire before the World Cup.
“I know everybody says he’s important to me, he’s important to us. It’s us. It’s not me,” Southgate said earlier this week. “Why do we pick him? Because he’s one of the players who gives us the best chance of winning.
“So really we should all be wanting a Harry Maguire that’s playing regularly and playing with confidence.”
United are gearing up for the busiest October in the club’s history, with Sunday’s Manchester derby the first of nine games in a month that also features a home match against Tottenham and trip to Chelsea.
Man Utd’s upcoming fixtures
Premier League unless stated:
- Sun 2 Oct: Manchester City (a)
- Thu 6 Oct: Omonia Nicosia (a) – Europa League
- Sun 9 Oct: Everton (a)
- Thu 13 Oct: Omonia Nicosia (h) – Europa League
- Sun 16 Oct: Newcastle (h)
- Wed 19 Oct: Tottenham (h)
- Sat 22 Oct: Chelsea (a)
- Thu 27 Oct: Sheriff (h) – Europa League
- Sun 30 Oct: West Ham (h)
- Thu 3 Nov: Real Sociedad (a) – Europa League
- Sun 6 Nov: Aston Villa (a)
- Thu 10 Nov: Aston Villa (h) – EFL Cup
- Sun 13 Nov: Fulham (a)
Ten Hag may therefore have little choice but to rotate, with the Europa League group campaign concluding on 3 November and an EFL Cup match against Aston Villa on 10 November to come as well, and so despite losing his place due to Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez’s emerging partnership, Maguire could have opportunities to build some momentum ahead of the World Cup.
“He will get games,” Keown added. “We’ve got the busiest period of the season coming up, so while I don’t think he’ll be overplayed, I think he should be able to get fit enough for the World Cup.
“That’s not in Southgate’s hands, but Maguire has got the mentality to deal with it. I do think everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon and having a go, I thought he played okay until the two mistakes [against Germany].
“It can happen to any central defender, but it seemingly can’t happen to Maguire at the moment because of not playing regularly enough.
“I do feel he will go to the World Cup and play in our first game, in a back three. At international level, you always have to prove you’re good enough. All the time while the media are questioning you, you’ve got to stick your chest out and shut out all the noise, minimise your mistakes – which he didn’t do the other night – but also show some confidence, because he’s lost quite a bit.
“You can’t say the manager is not giving him a chance, he’ll get that chance to prove everybody wrong and he’s got to focus on that. The delight in getting to show these people who say he’s not good enough to be there… he’s got the last chance to prove everybody wrong in a World Cup.”
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